Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Law of order: How kids' order influences their personalities

Personality traits

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

A few nights ago, Dr. Greg Yim and his wife, Shirley, decided to pick up a custard pie before heading home. Ready to pay, he pulled out his wallet and discovered the money was gone.

"I knew I had money in there," Yim said.

When they arrived home, Yim instinctively asked his youngest child if she had taken the money. The 4-year-old shook her head.

Still unsure, Yim asked his middle child. The 6-year-old said his sister had, indeed, taken the money, and led his dad to a bedroom closet. There, well-hidden behind a basket full of toys, was the missing money.

Yim was furious. That is, until his daughter pulled the last-resort trick most "youngest children" have mastered: "She gave me those puppy-dog eyes," Yim said with a laugh. "That’s the third child. You just can’t scold them."

Yim, like many other pediatricians, have seen real-life evidence of the research indicating that children’s behavior can be influenced by their birth order.

"I think there’s something to it," said Yim, a pediatric neurologist at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children and a Kaneohe father of three.

The indulgent and dominating oldest child. The neglected and adaptive middle child. The spoiled youngest child. These popular stereotypes actually have some backing by research, since personalities are often shaped by early influences.

However, as empirical studies have reiterated, birth order does not cause different personalities. It’s only part of the overall environment contributing to personality development.

Social determinants come from a variety of places - cultural upbringing, number of children in the family, parental involvement - which can also influence personality.

Despite the influences of birth order, "every child is born different from everyone else," said Raymond J. Corsini, retired clinical psychologist and author of more than 50 books, including the Encyclopedia of Psychology, where many findings of birth order studies are published. "And as time goes on, they (their personalities) take different directions, and you can’t predict that."

Even so, since birth order influences how parents raise their child - meaning parents tend to be more involved and cautious with their first child, more relaxed with later children, for instance - knowing how that affects their children’s personalities can be helpful to parents.

The oldest child

At one point, the oldest child was the only child, enjoying his or her parents’ full attention.

Parents pay close attention to everything that happens with their first born, logging down his or her first smile, first step and first words.

On the flip side, parents may view their first child as a reflection of themselves, pushing him or her to excel and setting high expectations, according to Ronald W. Richardson’s book, "Birth Order & You" (Self-Counsel Press, 2000).

"The older child usually attaches to the parents and becomes more conservative," said Corsini who is a longtime Hawaii resident.

Parents can devote more time and attention to their first child, and are usually more cautious, overprotective and indulgent, studies done in the 1970s by famed psychologist Alfred Adler found.

In many Asian families, a lot of responsibility is handed to the oldest child, especially sons, who are expected to offer support and guidance to the rest of the family.

"First-time parents probably try to catch the (first-born) kids every time they fail," said Dr. Ronald Hino, chief of pediatrics at Straub Clinic and Hospital and father of three sons. "With the first child, parents want to do everything right, not to make a mistake. They go to all the infant classes and buy all the right books."

That, in effect, can make the first-born child more dependent on his or her parents. And because this child doesn’t have siblings to compete with at first, they emulate the adults around them, according to several Adler studies. That’s why its important for parents to provide positive role models.

It’s when the second child arrives that the oldest child is forced to take on another role. That role could be supportive big brother or sister, or world’s most difficult child.

Anita Pillai-Allen, a urogynecologist at Straub and mother of four (including identical twins), said her oldest daughter, now 10, wasn’t thrilled about having siblings.

"She still wishes she was the only child," said the 38-year-old Kahala resident. "That’s the biggest problem managing her. She really resents having three brothers."

Experts recommend talking with the first-born child before and after his or her new sibling is born. Having them share some minor responsibility with the newborn may help them feel needed and useful, not neglected.

The second or middle child

According to several studies done decades ago by Alder and his disciples, there’s a difference between second-born and middle-born children.

Second-born children tend to be more dependent on either first- or later-born siblings and seek more adult approval and help than the others.

Middle-born children are better-adjusted emotionally, especially if from large families. But they typically have the greatest feeling of not belonging and are more sensitive to injustices, Adler’s studies reported.

But both second- and middle-born children have this in common: They don’t have the rights of the oldest or the favors of the youngest. Middle children tend to vacillate between trying to be grown up and obedient like the oldest, and helpless and cute like the youngest, Richardson wrote in his book.

Their experience dealing with the distinct personalities of their siblings, he wrote, makes them adept at dealing with all kinds of people. Experts say it’s important for parents to give each child appropriate and equal quality time, and to be aware of feelings of the middle child, who may feel left out.

Not having experienced being the only child, the second- and middle-born child may strive harder and compete to "take over." Parents should allow the middle-born child to explore and develop his or her own interests.

"The middle child tends to be paranoid," Corsini said. "They get suspicious because he or she sees the advantages of being the older or younger (child)."

The youngest child

The youngest child is typically the spoiled one, the one who will never be dethroned as the baby of the family.

The result of frequent doting, both by parents and older siblings, is a sense of security and a noncompetitive nature, studies by Alder have shown. They may deploy aggressive (acting out or crying) or passive (shyness or cuteness) tactics to get what they want.

However, this child still needs discipline, so parents shouldn’t be fooled by the youngest child’s ploys.

"The youngest child gets away with more things," said Yim, whose youngest daughter has mastered the puppy-dog eyes. "But on the other hand, the youngest child gets exposed to all the things the older children do. So there are advantages."

For example, his two older children took voice lessons. When his youngest daughter started classes, she already knew all the songs from listening to her siblings practice.

Parents tend to be sentimental about the youngest child, Hino said, often lamenting about how this will be their last Cub Scout meeting or parent-teacher conference. Parents won’t push the youngest child as much as they did the first-born.

Hino noticed that his youngest son enjoys interacting with younger children, probably because he never had younger siblings.

Much is determined by the parents and how they treat the child, experts said.

"You’re more relaxed after the first child," Pillai-Allen said. "You kinda experiment with the first one. You’re more orderly and organized with the later children. It’s just practical experience."

Identical twins

Still, for Pillai-Allen, the traits researchers have given the youngest child doesn’t match those of her two youngest sons, identical twin 5-year-olds.

"I can tell you that as a mother of twins in the same birth order, both genetically identical, they’re completely opposite," she said.

One’s more aggressive, the other’s passive. One’s more athletic, the other’s into music and dance. One likes chocolate, the other favors vanilla.

Her experience isn’t uncommon, as birth order doesn’t solely determine the child’s personality. Even with perfect carbon copies, as identical twins are, there can be marked differences between the two in their personalities.

"Each individual is an individual, even with identical twins," Pillai-Allen said. "Everyone is different. That tells a lot right there."

As a mother, she doesn’t consider birth order the end-all-be-all factor that shapes her children’s personalities. She also considers the many other factors: How are the children treated? Do they have playmates? What role do mom and dad play in upbringing?

"If birth order tell us anything, it’s that it’s variable and that personalities depend on both genetic and environmental influences," she said. "Those are the common-sense observations I’ve made."

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